Jun 14 2012

Forces of Quackery

I get a lot of press releases in my inbox. I’m not sure why – I suspect it’s because of this blog. I actually find it helpful for the occasional blog topic, even though most of it is self-promotional fluff that’s little more than spam. Although, I find spam useful too. I keep a separate folder for all my spam and track the themes as sociological data. It’s also interesting to track the strategies that spam marketers and con artists are using the exploit the unwary.

Recently I found a press release in my e-mail that I thought I would have some fun with. This is one of those commercial press releases, just selling a new company or product. Here’s the opening paragraph:

SONOMA, CA – Forces of Nature® is singlehandedly changing the over-the-counter medicines industry by introducing the world’s first and only FDA Registered remedies that are 100% Certified Organicby the United States Department of Agriculture. Combining homeopathic materials with medicinal botanicals, the extensive line of all-natural, chemical-free treatments are guaranteed to heal warts, nail fungus, acne, eczema, psoriasis, varicose veins, athlete’s foot and many other ailments.

This is essentially the modern version of the snake oil salesman barking out of the back of their wagon selling their latest magic elixir. Let’s play find the logical fallacy. The first one is contained in the name, a clear example of the naturalistic fallacy. This theme is obviously central to the marketing of this company. The notion that something is magically safe and/or effective simply because it’s natural is a common logical fallacy in our culture, carefully cultivated by the supplement and other industries to remarkable success. There is, however, no operational definition of what constitutes “natural” and there is no scientific reason to think that a substance that occurs in nature should be safe for human consumption or have any medical qualities. Most natural substances are deadly poisons.

Related to this is the appeal to the “organic” marketing label. In this case “organic” does have an operational definition, one that is now specifically regulated. In order to be certified organic you need to meet a specific list of criteria, for example using only natural vs synthetic pesticides. My problem with the organic label is that it is used as a marketing and ideological device, rather than simply using evidence-based sustainable and healthy farming techniques. Rather, I find the organic concept to itself be mostly a manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy. They assume, for example, that plant-based pesticides are somehow better for the environment or the consumer than synthetic pesticides, but there is no evidence for this. In fact because organic pesticides are generally less effective, more needs to be used which might be worse for the environment. Further, after 50 years of research the evidence does not support the conclusion that organic produce is more nutritious or healthful than conventional produce.

Also along the “naturalistic” line is the claim that their products are “chemical free.” This is likely true of any purely homeopathic products, which are diluted to the point that they are free of any chemicals, and any ingredients at all. Most homeopathic products, depending on the actual dilution, are complete free of any ingredients except water, which is often then placed on a sugar pill. So homeopathic products are literally just placebos.

The claim that herbal remedies are “chemical free” is simply wrong. Plants are made of chemicals. The term “chemical” does not mean or even imply synthetic or manufactured. Herbs contain many chemicals, some of which might act as drugs. Herbal therapy is drug therapy, disguised with the naturalistic fallacy.

Next up we have the claim that the products are “FDA registered” – this is a false appeal to authority. The company wants to imply that they have the FDA seal of approval, and are hoping that their potential customers don’t notice the difference between “FDA registered” and “FDA approved.” The FDA does not require any testing for homeopathic potions or herbal remedies, nor do they approve any such products for any indications. In fact products marketed as supplements need to contain a specific disclaimer that says that their claims have not been evaluated by the FDA (this disclaimer is missing from the Forces of Nature website).

However – looking at specific products on the website and their “active ingredients” it seems that the products are all homeopathic, rather than herbal. You’re not getting any actual ingredients (so the fact that they are “natural” and “organic” is completely irrelevant). It seems this is just a clever way to market homeopathic quackery and blur the line (a line most people don’t know is there) between homeopathic and herbal products.

The press release continues:

“These powerful modern medicines are scientifically based, non-toxic and safe to use, affordable, and highly effective,” said Forces of Nature’s founder, Dr. Peter Klapper, a noted PhD Biologist. “Instead of merely suppressing symptoms or providing temporary relief, like most pharmaceutical drugs, these treatments actually help the immune system clear disease from the body. They’re so powerful that when 1-3 drops are applied to the skin three times daily, most users begin to see results in just a few days.”

“Scientifically based?” That is a false claim. Modern science clearly leads to only one conclusion – homeopathy cannot possibly work. Clinical scientific studies also show that it does not work. Homeopathy is pseudoscience.

Dr. Klapper in his statement repeats the common CAM slander against modern medicine that it merely suppresses symptoms. In fact, science based medicine is the only form of medicine that has made a serious and systematic attempt to understand the actual cause of disease and to treat those causes whenever possible. Taking an antibiotic to eradicate an infection is not simply suppressing symptoms. Medical treatments fall into several categories: curative, therapeutic (disease modifying), prophylactic (preventive) and symptomatic. All are valid and useful treatments. Of course we try to cure whenever possible, but many chronic diseases cannot be cured by our current technology. Many can, however, be significantly modified. We cannot cure diabetes but we can significantly alter the course of diabetes with various treatments (lifestyle and medicines). Many science-based treatments prevent complications or reduce the risk of disease or the negative consequences of disease. I cannot cure migraine, but I can give treatments that will significantly reduce the number of migraine attacks. And finally many treatments are symptomatic, something which is very important to quality of life and greatly appreciated by those who need them.

CAM apologists often whitewash all this complexity with the smear that modern medicine is all symptomatic. This is demonstrably false. This claim is often coupled, as above, with the claim that the snake oil currently being sold does treat the underlying condition – based, of course, on no science at all. There is absolutely no credible evidence that any homeopathic potion does anything, let alone help the immune system clear disease from the body. This is simply made up nonsense.

Conclusion

There is nothing new in the marketing hype of this company that claims it is “singlehandedly changing the over-the-counter medicines industry.” This is all recycled marketing snake-oil hype. It is completely evidence-free. It is, if anything, a great example of how dysfunctional the industry is and how inadequate our current regulations. Homeopathy is magic water marketed with a host of health claims that are not supported by scientific evidence, and in fact often contradicted by scientific evidence. This is, in short, a scam. It’s scam, however, with the imprimatur of the FDA, not based on any science or testing but on anti-consumer laws that have given the homeopathic snake oil industry a free pass for over half a century.

 

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